Streets Are Filled With --
picking up what people have left behind
Batman/Batman Beyond: Better Dead Than Lead arc (Dick, Bruce, Terry) 
24th-Sep-2008 10:41 pm
Don't know how many people on the flist are actually Batman/Batman Beyond fans, but my KF picks seem to be perking some interest, and I have this gigantic multi-parter being fed into my LJ - thought it might be worthwhile porting and compiling what I've got right now over. Have at it! I'd totally love anyone saying anything about this - watch me be terrified on my first really huge major fic! IN A COMPLETELY OFF THE BALL UNFAMILIAR FANDOM! \o/

Better Dead Than Lead arc

compiling Gold is just a trick of the light, And lead is light as a feather and So leave me where the kids are all right.

Characters: Bruce, Dick, Terry
Warnings: Pre-slash sort of edging into the Batfamily's idea of slash. Assumes Return of the Joker has happened; adopts comic backstory for the most part of everything.
Summary: After a 50 year displacement into the future, Dick deals with what has and hasn't changed in the era of Terry McGinnis - of Batmen, and boy wonders.

Wordcount? Over 10,000. I'm not counting this one, oh no...

Not allowed -- You're not - allowed - to be a junkie when you - belong - to this - family, but if you keep running fast enough - you - start to hit - a kind of terminal - velocity that brings you to this kind of - adrenaline high - pure enough to put - coke to shame - and -

(He's never going to tell anyone this, but anyone who knows him has probably already guessed by now.)

- it's the faith that - goes with - the leap and then - the crash of concrete onto the padded tips of his fingers, flex and roll with it so his palms come down next, grit nothing next to the feel of his hips rising hard over his head, and a push off that would've torn fingernails from cuticle were it not for the suit and then up again, a hundred feet in the air and the de-cel rope trailing after him like an errant leash.

Dick breathes in with the city, watches Gotham underneath him like an old friend and lover. Tim is to the southeast, heading for the Narrows and Arkham. Bruce is somewhere, anywhere. Babs is everywhere. The world's ending, and Dick feels fine - feels brilliant, feels like he has a right and reason to be back home, and to run like his nerves are alight, and to just keep running until they fix this. It should bother him how much he isn't really concerned what this is; it's one in a long line of Alexandrias burning to the ground. He's here on campaign, the good soldier in something that is and isn't a war.

That's all Bruce's terminology. Dick is here because he believes, and wants to help.

'B to N,' comes Batman in his ear. 'Singularity developing at P-54.'

That's Robinson Park, two hundred feet below and a moment's work to the left. 'I'm on it,' Dick says, and flings himself outwards and up and

He should really have learned by now. After every crisis and every occasion where physics has failed to hold up, and his friends who really fly, and his associates who don't die, and the Martian, the cyborg, the regularly naked alien princesses -- he should really have learned by now, or at least have been surprised that it's never happened up till now.

The energy hits him like a solid wave and Dick has to fight not to black out. It simply means that he's vaguely conscious enough to see the world shimmer, which he wants very badly to attribute to vertigo but knows enough to attribute to everything else.

When what should have been a forty foot drop turns into a cavernous dive down a new set of skyscrapers and are those cars, they are hovering, because they shouldn't be hovering - 'I hate time travel,' Dick says, and then shifts his concentration onto bigger issues.

His grapple is wasted; whatever happened took him mid-swing. If he plays it right, he might smash into one of those newfangled cars, and break only half the bones in his body. His commlink is a staticky flat line in his left ear.

'Damn,' Dick murmurs under his breath, considering his options as he begins to pick up speed.

He doesn't see so much as feel something grab him under the arms. The world starts dropping away again. Superman is his first thought, but Dick hears his benefactor say, 'New in town, are you?' Clark's never managed to pick up biting sarcasm, for the most part.

He cranes his head back and sees black. There are a lot of things he wants to say in very little time -and a lot of it is inappropriate, emotional and everything that Bruce hates about gut-level responses - but Dick settles for, 'Who are you?', which is the sanest thing he can think of given the circumstances.

The kid - it's a kid, has to be a kid - says, 'Batman,' like he finds the idea that Dick doesn't know who he is pretty funny. 'And now your joyride's over.' He makes to drop Dick off on ground level. Dick has other ideas.

'Not funny,' the kid says when Dick swings his legs up and twists in his hold, latching onto the new-and-very-much-improved suit's shoulders. Dick has to fight to maintain his grip when the kid slams one arm outwards - no way that that's just kevlar - but it shakes him off enough that he gets his balance thrown and the kid gets a good look at just exactly what he's wearing.

The kid's other arm comes right up onto Dick's shoulder, and he's practically growling when he demands, 'Is this your idea of a sick joke?' He looks down at the blue stripe across Dick's chest like it's an ugly scar. His lenses are down and whited out, but if Dick can hear enough anger in his voice to know (feel, believe) that everything's wrong (right). (You don't sound like that unless you have people to protect; you don't sound like that unless you have your back up against a glass memorial case and you're torn between terror and rage and prayer.)

The bat on the kid's chest is red.

'I was thinking the same thing, coincidentally enough,' Dick replies evenly, and then he nervestrikes Batman and is surprised when the hit actually connects.

The kid doesn't crumple - looks like the suit's saved him from major damage - but it stuns him long enough that Dick regains the advantage of speed: he puts a hand on the back of the kid's neck and gropes until he feels the gap between the cowl and the rest of the costume. It's a game of chance to yank hard on it while activating the Nightwing suit's single-charge surge, but Dick shudders through the electricity and the kid doesn't smell like anything roasted --

'Oh god,' Dick swears quietly when he sees the kid's face. And his black hair, and his blue eyes. And god knows what else; god knows. 'Bruce.'

The kid blinks up at him, and then he narrows his eyes. 'I'm not -'

'Sorry,' Dick says.

'Well,' the kid replies, shortly.

'For this,' Dick amends, and slams his fist hard against his temple.

He foists the kid over his shoulder and starts off for the first alley. If one thing hasn't changed, then it looks like Gotham's supply of the dark and dank is one of them. The cowl's on the ground next to them. Dick picks it up, looks straight down at it, and the quiet crackle that's been going Terry! peters out. When he pulls it up close to his ear, Dick hears a voice that is fifty years older than it should be, and ageless. Dick.

Dick stops right there, slightly stupid and vulnerable in all the ways his training's taught him not to be, until a whirring noise makes him look up. A sleek, black, beautiful toy. Just like every other one Bruce has ever designed. The cockpit slides open to admit him before Dick can pat the kid down for a remote.

He gets in, and wonders where he's going, other than - just maybe - straight to hell.


They're heading towards Bristol, at least, and the Batmobile is as foreign and instinctively familiar as it should be. Constants. Constants are important.

He has no idea how Bruce goes - went? - goes through this (time travel/displacement/alternate universes) on a regular basis. There are stranger things on heaven and earth, Horatio - but Dick stays away from the Justice League for a reason. Maybe meta-misanthropy is communicable by adoption. He doesn't know.

What he wants is to be back where he should be. Dick doesn't appreciate being a fair-weather family member. There's trouble in Gotham - just not this one. That's where he should be. (He doesn't do well without context.)

For now, Dick lets the car do the driving - if Bruce built it, then he's probably in better hands with the autopilot than in his own - and settles for zip stripping the kid's wrists together. It won't hold him, considering how much of a punch the suit is capable of packing, but if "Terry" wakes up before they hit the Manor Dick will at least have warning and a fighting chance.

It disturbs Dick to know how little of a chance he actually needs. The kid probably has every kind of ranged advantage that Dick doesn't - the damn thing can fly, for one - but it took all of half a minute up close for Dick to come to the conclusion that the kid isn't trained.

Maybe that's being unfair. But the kid hasn't been trained, not the way he's meant to be, and at the end of the day it's the same damn thing as letting an amateur out on the streets. Dick wants to believe that he's wrong - that the kid's recuperating from a broken arm or leg or ribs or trauma - but lying to himself is one of the things he can't do.

Bruce beat that out of him.

Dick wonders if Bruce has beaten anything into this kid at all, besides a false sense of superiority and the world's most expensive safety blanket. It's not something he thinks would (could) ever happen.

But too much introspection is dangerous, especially when you're thinking about Bruce. Dick comes back into himself: the city's blurring beyond him, and the GPS shows a tangle of unfamiliar streets. No point trying to scope any of that out. The muted newsfeeds on one of the Batmobile's panels tells him the date, and for a second the world seems to hang in a moment of breakneck vertigo.

Bruce has to be, what, in his late seventies? Eighties?

Dick looks back over his shoulder at the seventeen, eighteen, nineteen year old kid and wonders if he looked anything like that sixty/ten years ago.

'Bruce,' Dick sighs, for lack of anything else to swear by.

The car swings downwards, into the Cave, and at least something is the same. At least something is sane. The Cave is lovely, dark and deep. And maybe the fact that it looks exactly the same should be tipping Dick off when he gets out of the car, but it all fades to the usual background when he sees the old man.

The old man.

'Dick,' Bruce says, standing and leaning on a cane and sounding exactly as impatient with him as he always does when Dick gets taken by surprise. (Is anything surprising to Bruce?) He's got a half-head full of white hair and a back that's finally bowed. Dick ends up paralysed by the razor edge of Bruce's glance, which is blue and cold and unimpressed. 'Where's Terry?' Bruce asks, when Dick can't find any words.

'What -' Dick starts. 'Terry. The kid?'

No hellos for you, Dick Grayson. Were you expecting anything else?

Dick hauls "Terry" out of the back. The kid's still out of it. Bruce glances down at the zip strip, but spares Dick the interrogation. Grateful, Dick cuts the plastic and slings one of the kid's arms over his shoulders, walking him over to the (universal) examination table next to the ---

It's not just Jason any more.

'Oh, god,' Dick says, looking at Robin. And Robin. And Batgirl and Batman and then himself, an eerie-as-fuck reflection in a glass case, so perfectly still and unmoving that he feels the need to run and run and run until he can prove to himself that he's still alive. The only thing glass cases are used for is to act as markers on unmarked graves.

'Put him down,' Bruce says, tearing through Dick's panic with his usual sense of mercy. Dick wrenches his gaze away, puts Terry down and then the world goes black for him.

And he, Dick knows perfectly well, should have seen that coming from a mile off.

Bruce Wayne, allowing a stranger into his Cave? Doesn't matter if the stranger's wearing the face of the soldier who's helped him on his mission the longest. Still a stranger, in a strange land.

The nervestrike is probably a degree or two worse than the one he used on Terry, but Dick's pretty sure he deserves it for being so stupid.

He hopes that Bruce won't let him smash his own face open on the floor. He's not, however, sure if Bruce can move fast enough to catch him anymore.

When he comes to, Dick finds that he can't move. Can't see, either. Nothing's in his mouth, though, which means he can probably talk. He's good at talking. 'Hello?' he calls out. There's a slight shuffling sound, like feet moving and a door opening, and then Bruce is in the room.

It's just the way the air shifts. The kid would've made more noise. Whatever noise Dick is hearing, Bruce wants him to hear. 'Bruce?' he ventures, nonetheless.

'Your DNA matches out,' Batman says. Bruce, wherever he is, is not here right now.

'I'm me,' Dick says, but without much candour. He knows it's a weak argument: how many possibilities are there explaining his current existence? Cloning, genetic manipulation... 'Though I'm pretty sure I'm not meant to be here. It's fifty years from what my watch is telling me, for one.'

Bruce doesn't say anything for a little while. Dick resists the urge to squirm against the restraints. If he wants Batman to trust him, he's going to have to give everything he's got. And then probably more, just like old times.

'When did I adopt you?' Batman starts.

'2001, but I could have learnt that off any public record. Ask again, Bruce.' Dick imagines a smile.

'What did you swear?'

'To fight against crime and corruption,' Dick grits out. 'And to never swerve from the path of justice.' The words of the oath rip themselves from his body like a plea to be heard.

Batman doesn't even pause. 'When did Barbara Gordon regain her ability to walk?'


And then the lights come back on. Bruce holds the blindfold in his hand, and Dick stares at him, in all his manic, pleased, eighty-year-old-man glory. 'Babs is walking?' he demands. Bruce has him practically staple-gunned to an upright panel, but the awkwardness of the position doesn't stop him from wanting to move forward. 'When?'

'Gene therapy,' Bruce answers, making no obvious move to let Dick down. 'And a year of additional physiotherapy before she took her first steps.'

'She's -'

'Also married,' Bruce continues, watching him, watching every single one of Dick's emotions as they have to be flying, blatant and indiscreet, over his face. Babs. Married. And probably not to him. Good for her. Just. Everything seems to hurt right now, like friction when you live life too quickly in fast-forward.

'To Sam Young, the current district attorney. She's taken up her father's position as police commissioner.'

Where's Oracle?

'Tim Drake is an electronic engineer.' Bruce isn't even letting him breathe between punches. 'The Joker -'

beat him in with a crowbar - shot him in the spine -

'- captured, tortured and, for a period of time, took possession of his body. He retired years ago.'

'Little brother,' Dick chokes, unsure of what or who he means. 'My little -'

'Alfred Pennyworth died in the year 2034,' Bruce says. 'Peacefully.'

Dick sags. 'Stop it,' he says, quietly, eyes hooded and head bowed. 'It's different. Our worlds. Or timelines.'

'Is it?' Bruce asks, brutal, coming around and pressing a release catch and letting Dick down. Dick gets his limbs working just in time to stop himself from breaking a few bones. Bruce doesn't offer him a hand; he just says, 'It's a good thing I don't believe in fate.'

Dick rubs his wrists. 'Why?'

'Because Nightwing broke his back in the near-Apocalypse of '09,' Bruce tells him, putting both hands on his cane and looking straight at Dick. It's impossible to tell if he's disappointed, or relieved, or both, or neither. 'And Richard Grayson left for Bludhaven, and never came back.'

Dick swallows. 'Bludhaven's gone now,' he says. 'I'm in New York. Tim's all right. Tim's fantastic. Cass kicks all our butts. And Babs is beautiful and broken. And Jason's --'

Bruce's eyes narrow and say don't. So Dick doesn't. It seems to please Bruce, that Dick understands, so he gets given a pair of pants and a loose white t-shirt that fits him perfectly. 'Get changed,' Bruce says. 'Then we'll talk about getting you back.'

'What about the new kid?' Dick asks.

'Terence McGinnis,' Bruce shrugs, offering Dick the sum total of absolutely nothing to work on.

'He's green and limp all over,' Dick objects, pulling the Nightwing suit off and tugging the shirt on.

It makes Bruce smile, for some reason. Dick doesn't think about it as he gets out of his leggings. 'And, what, seventeen?'

'Eighteen,' Bruce corrects, tapping the floor with his cane.

Dick shoots him a look. 'Aren't you a little old to be picking up new side-kicks?'

Bruce heads into the cave proper. 'I didn't pick him. He chose this.'

'I'll stop you when I think I've heard this before,' Dick proffers, catching up. 'I've heard this before. It's probably true. But how are you running gauntlets for this kid? How are you teaching him anything?' Bruce, Dick doesn't say, because he doesn't want to: you're old. So old.

Bruce turns on his heel, still quick enough that Dick has to cut his gait to stop himself from crashing into him. 'His father was murdered by the man I let run Wayne Industries. Collateral damage. The man proceeded to hire one of a multitude of teenaged Joker groups to ransack Warren McGinnis' house. They left after spray painting obscenities on the walls.'

It's automatic for Dick to say, 'It wasn't your fault.' I'm sorry.

It's equally automatic for Bruce to raise an eyebrow, and to say nothing more. His shoulders are stooped with the weight of a thousand of these personal accusations. Bruce still doesn't look keen on buckling down.

Dick follows that silhouette through the familiar passageways. When it opens up into the main section of the Cave, he spots the kid sitting on the console, kicking his legs back and forth. 'Hey, old man,' Terry says, hopping down. 'And Nightwing, right?'

'Terry,' Bruce acknowledges. Terry holds out a hand to Dick. Dick looks at Bruce. The expression on Bruce's face probably, once translated, means play nice.

Dick settles for shaking Terry's hand very, very hard. 'Dick Grayson,' he says, trying hard not to enumerate the ways in which Terry could get beaten up by his little brother and failing. Be a good person, Grayson. Judge not the book by its cover. Love thy neighbour. Why does Bruce always give the suit to the least deserving-- 'Nice to meet you.'

Terry's eyes are blue like his own, and five times more suspicious. 'You knocked me out when you first met me.'

'You let me,' Dick says, smiling. It pisses Terry off exactly as much as he thought it would.

'Not many people come back from the dead,' Terry says, palm still connected to Dick's own. Dick makes a little mental wager about which one of them is going to let go first.

'I don't think I'm your version of me,' Dick says. 'But even then, sometimes history comes back to bite you.' Hard, hopefully.

'Ha ha,' Terry laughs, with two precise syllables.

'Ha,' Dick rounds it off.

'Boys,' Bruce says, voice deep with amusement. Dick's the one to let go of Terry's hand, measuring every iota of satisfaction on the kid's face. Bruce continues, 'There was an energy spike around old Robinson Avenue earlier today at the same time Dick appeared. Man-made, more likely than magical, but also more likely to have come from your dimension than ours.'

'We're currently involved in a crisis in Gotham,' Dick admits. 'Talia,' he says.

'Oh man,' Terry groans.

'You've heard of her?' Dick asks, surprised.

Terry makes a vague motion with his hand, his lips twisting. 'About this tall, leggy, beautiful, insane?'

Dick has to grin. 'Pushy, too.'

'That's her. She tried - he tried - R'as.' Terry pauses, shaking his head. 'It's a long, messed up story, and the boss looks like he wants us to concentrate.'

'Thank you,' Bruce says sardonically.

It's been a while since Dick's heard that from him; it's the kind of sarcasm that was more typical during his days as Robin. It sounds good. Feels good. Constant and familiar.

'If none of Talia or her company followed you through,' Bruce speculates, 'it's highly probable that whatever is going to bring you back will not be triggered on our part.'

Dick narrows his eyes. 'So I leave my return in the hands of luck?'

'No,' Bruce growls. 'You go back to Robinson tomorrow, search for any residue traces, and do what you can with the information you find. And if you can do nothing, then you leave it to me.'

Me being you being the Bruce I know, Dick thinks. 'Right,' he says, a bit too quickly.

Terry smothers a laugh. 'Are you always this hard on your Robins?' he asks Bruce.

'I'm not a Robin,' Dick says at the exact same moment that Bruce says, yes.

'I'm not wearing the Robin suit,' Terry states, flatly. 'Even if Nightwing can kick my ass.'

'I didn't suppose you would,' Bruce says, humouring Terry. Dick watches them talk.

'So is this it for tonight?' Terry stretches, casual and with little finesse. Dick wonders when he got so critical. 'Gotta go meet Dana. I've ditched her twice in a row already, and things are getting, ah, a bit hairy.'

'Hm,' Bruce hums, in that way of his that has to do with part-sympathy, part-mockery. Terry gives him a wave, slings on a jacket, and legs it up out of the staircase with a call of "night!" thrown behind him.

Dick spends a very long time just trying to gather his thoughts. 'Dana?' is what he manages.

'His high school girlfriend,' Bruce says.

'Normal girlfriend?' Dick asks. 'Long-term, normal girlfriend?'

'Insofar as I have managed to observe, yes.' Bruce, sitting at the console's chair, turns to look at him. 'Coming from you, Dick, the question seems largely hypocritical.'

'None of mine were serious,' says Dick. 'And you never approved of any of them.'

'What's to say I approve of Dana?' Bruce raises his eyebrows.

'What's to say?' Dick echoes, slightly incredulous. He's more than well aware of how his voice is rising; it's inevitable, with Bruce. Things happen: Dick disagrees: they fight. 'You let the kid walk around with a thousand holes in his invincible armour, and then give him the night off to play kiss and make up. If I ever tried that when I was Robin, what would you have done to me?'

Bruce looks at him for a long, long time. Then he says, 'Are you jealous of Terence?' in a way that makes it anything but a question. Dick stops short.

'I -'

'Things have changed, Dick,' says Bruce, not giving Dick a chance to finish - or start - his sentence. Hard and harsh and absolutely as impersonal as he has always been. And he wants to talk about change. 'Are you angry because they did not change for you?'

Dick snaps his jaw shut with a click, and stares down at Bruce. Bruce's only response is his silence, that perfect defence with the fifty feet of psychological armour.

'I should go get a shower,' Dick gives in, looking away.

Bruce turns back to the console and says to the monitor, 'You can have your old room. I'll work on creating a temporary alias for you.'

When Dick gets into his room, he finds it aired and almost exactly the way he thinks his room looks like back home. There's a bottle of solvent on the table in front of the mirror. He picks it up, and when Dick looks into his own reflection, realises that it's for the spirit gum. He's still wearing his domino; a dark shadow spreading its wings across his face, and his eyes. Dick takes the hottest shower his skin can bear, and goes to sleep with his blood thrumming in his veins.

When he wakes up, he finds a three-piece suit hanging on his door knob, black and classic white. Dick runs one finger over the shoulders. Bruce's tastes haven't got any less rich, that's for sure: the stuff feels both slippery and solid, the way the best fabrics do. There's no note. Dick leaves the thing lying on the top of his sheets, and heads downstairs to the kitchen. The halls as he passes through them are all draped and undusted: Alfred would've thrown fits, but Alfred -

died in 2034, peacefully.

- isn't here right now.

In true Wayne tradition, Bruce hasn't been taking care of anything past the bare necessities. Things are clean enough that no one could have reason to complain, but static enough that it feels like a tomb. Dick imagines contracted helpers withering under Bruce's watchful eye, and laughs a little to himself. Clinging to the past is just one of the many habits which Bruce long ago developed into art forms. He tries his best to stay on the worn carpet. It's not like anyone's actually lived in the manor proper for the last sixty years, never mind the last fifty.

There's cereal, milk and orange juice on the kitchen counter when Dick gets there. Bruce is reading something off a slim computer. He looks frail in the sunlight, frail and very strong. Brittle. 'Morning,' Dick yawns, dragging a hand through his hair. Bruce grunts. Neither of them are morning people, and the coffee is still brewing in the state-of-the-art machine.

Dick's through his first cup (three sugars, one milk) and Bruce through his second (half a sugar, no milk) when they finally get around to having a proper conversation. Bruce shuts his computer, and reaches into the pockets of his sharp, lapel-free jacket. He pulls out a smart leather folio, passing it over for Dick's inspection. It opens to reveal a passport, a few social security cards, driving licenses, credit cards. 'Robbie Drake?' Dick reads off the name printed on each of the items.

'Tim consented to the idea of you taking up position as one of his distant cousins. The name isn't memorable, and Jack Drake's own heritage was never pursued with much interest after his bankruptcy. The family gives you an excuse to be in Gotham,' Bruce says. 'And gives me a reason to have you around. I'll introduce you at the Wayne Enterprises event tonight. It'll serve as cover until you ultimately... disappear with a few million dollars in your pocket.'

'Is that what the suit is for?' Dick asks, looking across the counter at Bruce.

'Better to provide people with answers before they invent their own,' Bruce shrugs. 'It'll keep the sharks waiting for me to die off my back, for however long you are around.'

That makes Dick grin into his coffee. 'Bruce Wayne, aging industrialist?'

That makes Bruce smile, in a way that used to promise violence but now just seems to promise corporate takeovers and exasperated board members. 'It passes the time.' Bruce looks happy, alert.

'Looks like you finally got around to liking Bruce Wayne,' Dick says, picking up speed. 'You used to hate him.'

'I used to have to sleep with people very often,' says Bruce. 'It irritates me to have others in my personal space.'

'That, and you used to act like a fop,' Dick sniggers. 'Brucie.'

'And his charming young ward, Dickie Grayson,' Bruce shoots back in that old (recent) stupid drawl, vowels extending themselves and his eyes going sleepy. It shuts Dick up, but Dick does a very bad job of hiding his smile behind his mug as he finishes up his breakfast. 'You should go out into town,' says Bruce in his normal voice. 'I've stopped keeping your extras in the manor.'

Dick washes both their dishes in the sink, the soap and Bruce's inability to even act domestic making the ground feel more solid beneath his feet. 'I'm not sure I'm equipped to handle the Batmobile in its current form,' he admits.

'Did you really think I only have one car?' Bruce replies, bemused, and Dick's day gets that much better.

'Oh, yes please,' Dick says, petting the Bentley's steering wheel. It purrs. It sits. It absorbs light like the best of black cars do. It's custom and it floats and it eats up the ground around the manor as though it's been starved for the last year. The controls are as slick as anything with four wheels could ever hope to have. There was a Royce, but the Royce had wheels. The Lambho would've eaten Dick alive, that, or Dick might've never come out of the driver's seat. Technology always moves, but there's nothing like jumping half a century forward to tell you how good things can really get.

'Enjoying yourself?' is Bruce's smug question in his ear. The transceivers are a lot smaller, too, but crystal clear and a lot less fraught with static. Dick can hear the gravelly rumble of Bruce's voice even over the rush of the air coming in through the downed windows.

'Can I keep it?' Dick asks. He decides he's had enough of a trial run and hits the filter lane out back to Gotham itself. 'Or, better yet, do they make bikes?'

'We'll see,' Bruce replies. 'Get back before seven. The dinner's at seven thirty.'

Dick spares a moment to stroke the dashboard. 'Can I drive to there?'

'That's what gophers are for,' Bruce says, and then he cuts the connection.

Dick comes back with a small fortune worth of clothes and gadgetry, but mostly what takes up room in the back seat of the car is groceries. The fridge that morning frightened Dick into remembering the odd occasions during his past when Bruce would attempt to transfer his natural aptitude for crime-fighting towards a complete incapability to cook. He's stocking Ovaltine and the first set of perishables the kitchen has seen in half a century into the pantry when a sound makes him turn.

'You're hard to sneak up on,' Terry says, leaning against the doorjamb.

'Comes with the territory,' Dick chuckles, turning back and putting the last of the things away. Wiping his hands on the front of his pants, he goes around and puts a hand on Terry's shoulder. 'Look, about last night.'

'Nah,' Terry shakes his head. 'Forget about it. You must have been pretty slagged, coming in off a blip like that.'

'Slagged?' Dick echoes.

'Wasted,' Terry says, in the same kind of tone teenagers use when trying to explain to adults why things are/are not "cool". 'Freaked out.'

Dick folds his arms in chagrin. 'Now I feel old.'

'You're pretty fast for your age,' Terry quips. He's got one hell of a mouth on him.

'Brat,' Dick grumbles.

'Anyway,' Terry changes the subject. 'I wanted to come by and say thanks. My family doesn't exactly go in with the kind of crowd that Wayne follows, so I've kind of been leeching off your stuff for the last little while.' He plucks at the suit jacket he has on. 'It's got D.G initialled on the back of the collar, so I guess it's yours, huh?'

Dick gives him a look. 'Kid,' he says, slowly. 'If I'm counting right, I haven't been here in over forty years. Whatever you're wearing, "I"'ve probably never worn before in my life. You can't put one of those into a wardrobe and not have it get eaten away over the years.'

'Then,' Terry starts, eyes widening, but Dick shakes his head.

'Look,' says Dick, uncomfortable. 'Bruce probably had them remade.' It fits into the pattern of strange, compulsive urges he's nurtured for the last forever you haven't seen. Like the room with posters from Haly's Circus, and the other one with an unopened pack of cigarettes hidden in a bottom drawer.

'That,' Terry says, 'is just so messed up. Why would he remake suits that no one's going to wear?'

'Why would he have a fully-functioning Batcave filled with giant toys?' Dick shoots back. It doesn't make the chill that's been going down his spine for the last half minute go away. 'It's Bruce. He has -- issues.'

'Lots,' Bruce says, walking into the kitchen, 'of issues.'

Terry jumps violently enough to knock into the table. Dick catches him by the shoulder before he hits himself, and turns him around to face the old man. 'Jesus, Bruce!' Terry says as Dick catches Bruce's eye (this kid is --). 'Could you move any more quietly?'

'Not in this condition,' Bruce answers, sounding the farthest thing from annoyed. Dick frowns, marginally. 'Get the car,' Terry gets told. 'Dick, get changed.'

Dick waits for Terry to move out of earshot. 'He should've heard you coming.'

'You should have watched your mouth,' Bruce replies.

'Not the point,' Dick dismisses.

Bruce admits, 'He's used to the suit.'

'And you're used to letting him,' Dick says, a little sharper than he intended to. 'Look, Bruce, I don't care how much things have changed. The kid's not ready. I've barely '

'He's met Talia,' says Bruce.

'What?' Dick sputters, thrown.

'Why,' Bruce asks, 'would he have met her?'

'Because she's persistent,' Dick replies. 'Because she has access to any number of Pits and probably still uses them.' He looks at the way Bruce's knuckles are tight, so tight, about his cane. Bruce, he notices, walks with a pronounced limp these days. 'Because she,' he hesitates, 'asked you to. Bruce.'

'I said yes,' Bruce growls, biting out words he never learned how to say under a different sky. 'I even believed it was worth the sacrifice, since it meant I'd be able to train Terry the way he needed to be trained. After the first immersion, I stood in front of the mirror and felt nothing but rage. It had nothing to do with the Pit's effects, Dick. It had everything to do with that man being false and coming out of the past. All things die,' Bruce says, savage. 'And they should stay dead.'

The last person they knew who came out of a Pit was Jason Todd.

Dick shadows his eyes, feeling like a ghost. 'I can help.'

'I know,' Bruce looks truly tired. 'I expect you to.'

Dick pushes himself off the table. He's eye-level with Bruce, now that Bruce is as stooped as he is. It makes it easier, less daunting, to place one tentative touch atop the leathery skin of Bruce's hand. 'I swore an oath to the mission,' Dick says, words in replacement for the action he doesn't dare commit to. 'And also to a person. Whatever you need, Bruce.'

Bruce looks at him, maybe moved, maybe unmoved. Dick licks his dry lips, and squeezes hard against Bruce's fingers. It makes Bruce nod, almost imperceptibly. Dick cracks half a grin. 'Does your gopher drive well?'

Dick wants to memorise, for his own benefit, this specific slide of Bruce's expressions as they go from closed straight in to open. 'You're going to get to know that and everything else about him soon enough.'


Dick spends the evening of the Wayne function watching Terry being everything he's not. While everyone fights to shake hands with Robbie Drake - heir apparent and billionaire walking - Terence McGinnis plays unnoticed outcast. Mostly he lingers, a very blasé watchdog by Bruce's side. Other time he mingles, but never quite enough. Bruce used to host events like these - giant mill-arounds where Dick or Jason or Tim would be forced to spend entire evenings associating, meeting and greeting, memorising. It's dangerous to think in past tense when that Bruce is in his present, but everything now is so out of place that continuity correction seems to be the last of Dick's problems.

It aches, Dick thinks, as he smiles at Jordan Price and watches hate blossom in the other man's eyes. Aches like a joint dislocated - terrible, acute, but not necessarily fatal.

Things have changed. Dick's not sure precisely what universe he's in, but he knows he has to believe in something. Start with logic and move on from there. Search for the constant, and then change the controls. He's never wrong. He's never wrong.

'I see you've met Price,' Bruce says, gliding into place next to Dick and causing a small surge in the crowd. People start coming closer. It probably has something to do with natural magnetism, in the way of plate tectonics and charisma.

Dick hides his grimace behind a sip of his drink and nods. 'Not a friend of yours, I'm guessing.' Wayne money is a touchy subject. Everyone wants to get their hands on it. Bruce never lets it go. It's a dichotomy that people have had problems with since before Dick was born.

'He'll live through the beating that his ego is taking,' Bruce murmurs.

There's so much foreign pride in Bruce's eyes that Dick's unsure if he made the oath to the right person earlier that night. He's not sure if anything - or anyone - can be entirely unitary. But here Bruce Wayne is, being Bruce Wayne. Even his voice has changed. Dick leaves his half-finished champagne flute on a table, and goes off (flees) to continue playing the game.

There are people from Foxtecha, people who are second-generation Cadmus, people who are STAR Lab pedigree. The names have all changed. The personalities, not so much. Dick wants to tear the suit off by the second hour, and not for the benefit of the women who've been staring at him like he's a particularly fine chop of meat.

By the time it's over, Dick wants to do nothing but to go out on patrol and run himself ragged. McGinnis looks dead from boredom. Bruce looks like Bruce. They take the shortest route home.

'Rough night,' McGinnis quips as he parks the car. Dick's starting to see a pattern to his speech; it's in the way McGinnis instinctively tries to push the oppressive silence of the cave back. It's something Dick empathises with: sometimes you can feel dwarfed by the enormity of the cave, the mission, the silence. You'll do anything to stop yourself from being devoured, because if you don't talk, if you don't joke, if you don't make some noise, you turn into Batman, and that's more of a curse than Dick thinks Terry understands just right now.

'Get suited up,' is all Bruce says, even though in another life(time) he might've (should've) had Terry at the computer regurgitating information from the earlier session. 'The night's hardly begun.'

Bruce turns and gives Dick a look that is entirely different from the one he just gave Terry. Dick shrugs slightly, and goes to suit up. The Nightwing costume that Bruce has in the -- has in storage is different from the one that he came in: it's rougher on the edges, older, less streamlined. It'll have to do, for now - and it's not the equipment that matters, in any case. The only piece of tech that really matters is the new communicator. Dick flips it in the air once, then slips it into the canal of his right ear.

'Come on, kid,' he motions at Terry, putting on the domino. 'Time for you to show me what you're made of.'

'We'll see if you can keep up,' Terry replies, pulling on the cowl. It's the strangest and most pleasing thing Dick's heard yet when the kid's timbre shifts and roughens with his next sentence: 'Nightwing.' It reminds Dick of Bruce.

'Get the car, little bat.'

The cowl hides most of Terry's expressions, but Dick thinks he can see a smile when Terry says, 'Guess who's riding side-saddle today?'

Dick gets the scope of things on the way to Robinson. Terry's not totally efficient when he points out the trouble spots and the most radically changed areas of town, but then again he's a young kid coming off the shoulders of giants: no one beats Bruce at dissemination, and Dick's used to Tim and his little brother's partially frightening analyticity. Terry squeezes in a lot of opinion on the side - "that's Jokerz territory; good hunting but lots of bad taste to make up for it" - but he gets the job done.

'So the N line,' Dick says, studying a layout of the neo-Gotham transit system. 'It's right below us and heads to the park?'

'Not exactly,' Terry shakes his head. 'Changes over to the number 2 train at the Midtown junction.'

'That used to be a pretty big interchange,' Dick nods. 'I think I can handle it.' He knocks Terry on the back of the cowl, rat-a-tat-tat. 'Little bat, slow down a bit.'

'Handle what?' Terry asks, turning back to look at Dick as he eases up on the car. 'Hey, don't touch t--'

'I wonder what this little red button does?' Dick asks rhetorically, and then he hits the cockpit release and stands up to meet sweet, sweet air resistance. 'Bingo. I'll meet you at the park, kid. Don't get lost along the way.'

'Are you crazy?' the kid demands, pulling the Batmobile down to a pretty pathetic crawl, considering its capabilities. Dick can almost see individual buildings instead of a generalised blur now. 'Your suit's just kevlar! You hit anything on the drop down and I'll be scraping pieces of you off the sidewalk and giving you back to Wayne in a plastic bag.'

Terry reminds him, briefly, of audiences at the circus. They never want to believe what they know they're going to see. 'I'd better not screw up, then,' Dick grins. His domino doesn't hide anything; it was never designed to. 'Because I don't think Bruce will be too happy if I end up dead on your watch. Be on time, little bat. I won't wait forever.'

There's the beauty of improved technology: the southbound automated N line hits the tracks beneath them just on schedule, and Dick manages a small wave before he lets his de-cel rope go taut and leaps. If Terry's saying anything, he doesn't hear: the world moves into a cacophony of sound and action. Dick lands on the roof of the middle carriage with enough room to spare for a roll and a stand: he comes up, sticks the landing, and has the cord drawn back in before Terry even manages to open the secure channel between their commlinks.

'Are you out of your mind, Nightwing?'

'Live a little,' Dick shouts over the rush of air. 'You'll love it if you try it. And you really shouldn't talk while driving, kid. N out.' He shuts Terry down before opening a link back to the manor. 'N to B,' he says. 'I know you're there.'


'Your kid is easily impressed,' Dick says, bounding over the gap between cars and heading for the front. It's better to have more leeway for the jump than less, and Dick's always liked riding close to the line in any case. 'Never quite showed him the ropes, did you?'

'I haven't had the time,' Bruce says, dry as anything.

'Who would've thought that age'd give you back your sense of humour?' Dick flexes his fingers, and watches the lights of the number 2 coming in from a distance. 'It's not a very good trade-in for the training, Bruce.'

'It's easier to simulate combat modules in the cave than it is to demonstrate acrobatics with arthritis.'

'Does this one listen, at least?' asks Dick, pulling himself into a crouch.

'Occasionally,' Bruce replies.

'Good,' Dick says. 'I'll get him back to you in one piece, but I don't think he's going to like me very much by the end of it all.'

Bruce says, 'Did you like me very much during your training? ' just as Dick throws himself across the tracks and onto his new ride. It takes him a good three seconds to swallow down the adrenaline. Dick flattens himself out and says, 'No,' as Robinson Park comes in closer from the East, zooming in at sixty miles an hour under the dark, filthy air. Dick thinks he could get to love this Gotham almost as much as the one he knows. 'But I sure loved you for it afterwards.'

The Park is a dead end and then some. Dick meets up with Terry at the co-ordinates of his appearance (the look on the kid's face doesn't hold up to his attempt at being casual when he tells Dick "you're alive"), and they do as fine a sweep as they can considering that the trail is two nights old. Dick goes for a lay of the land while Terry takes the intangibles.

'Radioactivity readings are normal,' Terry reports, coming back in from a loop around the radius of the original blast. He joins Dick on the roof of the park's visitors' centre. 'No significant EM spikes. No heat signatures. Air constitution is dead on average. If there's anything we're supposed to be seeing, I'm not picking it up.'

'Fancy,' Dick whistles, motioning at the suit. 'Spectrograph and mini-analysis lab all in one. Wish I had that in my day. How many times does it factor your strength?'

'Roughly ten,' Terry says offhand. Kid definitely takes the thing for granted. The cowl's eyepieces flicker. 'And I'm not getting anything on any of the light spectrums.'

'The scene's too contaminated,' Dick agrees, pointing down. There have to be at least eight couples and a few solo stragglers wandering around below them, counting only the ones that have gone by in the past hour. 'If the rip even left any at all, it could be in one of a thousand places by now. Needle in a haystack. This one's a dead end.'

'What other ends do we have? Wayne's being pretty unhelpful about this case.'

Dick shrugs. There's no point in getting frustrated, either at his situation or at Terry's abilities of detection. 'We keep monitoring the city for any other potential spikes. Consult whichever resident magic user is in Gotham at this point. I'll hit the archives in the morning, check up on any news from the date that I got plucked out, and sieve out any anomalies from there. We bother Bruce only when we have to.'

Terry crosses his arms, and here comes some of the scepticism that should have been there right from the start. It's only in this family that being a suspicious bastard is a good character trait, but some things even Dick won't question. 'I don't think the old man's just going to sit this one out.'

'Sit it out?' Dick raises his eyebrows. He resists the urge to waggle them, resists the urge to turn this into a game. 'He's not sitting this one out. If anything, he'll be pursuing whatever avenues I didn't and can't think of - and he'll tell us if anything comes up.'

'This is turning into a waiting game,' Terry gripes. 'Not exactly my forte.'

Problem with the cowl is that you can't ruffle a guy's hair while it's on him. Dick settles for patting Terry on the arm. It's not a great substitute, but Terry isn't exactly a kid -- not one of Bruce's, at least. 'Instant gratification got old with email,' he says. 'Come on, little bat. Time for you to pick up some traditions.'

It's not the easiest thing in the world, Terry discovers, to have a conversation on the top of a block of moving metal death. Shouting to be heard is difficult to do while simultaneously hanging on for dear life.

'Have you and the old man ever thought of getting yourselves psychologically profiled!'

'Nope. Get ready, little bat.'

'Because I think you'd both benefit from seeing a shrink. God I am so fragged -- '

Terry's still shaking when Dick calls the car over and gets him to change in the back seat. 'You're dripping,' Dick points out helpfully, kicking the car into a sweet, silent slide and heading straight for Terry's home.

Terry's hair is plastered right over his face. He looks flushed, worked over, a little manic. It looks good on him, looks right. The trains knock cockiness out of people almost as fast as they knock the breath out of people's lungs. What Bruce calls (called?) a sharp, severe shock. Bruce always has the quaintest expressions.

'Dripping? I'm surprised I'm not dead,' the kid grumbles, shoving the cowl aside and scrubbing his face with his fingers. 'You've got strange ideas of fun, mister.'

'Tell me you didn't like it and I'll never make you do it again,' Dick offers.

Terry snorts a laugh. It modulates his voice back into something a bit younger. 'I'll get back to you about that when I'm feeling less motion sick.'

There's the sound of the suit getting pulled off. Dick risks a look backwards, and catches a glance just in time to see how flawless the kid's skin really is. Lots of bruises, but not exactly the kind of post-war minefield that his body - or, god knows, Bruce's - is. Scratches here and there. Marks Dick would've dismissed as surface wounds, if he didn't have a sound idea of exactly how much heat the kid had to have packed against him for the suit to have allowed that much through. Dick has potholes in his own body; craters and valleys where flesh and blood emptied out to air and water. Bruce - Bruce's body is alien territory. Foreign, fabled, fantastic, fucked up.

Terry's body is a different kind of fucked up. He pulls a tank over his head, and it all disappears a little bit too easily. Dick can't exactly wear anything even resembling a wifebeater without at least a light jacket, not unless he wants to get asked questions about whether he's ever seen active duty or got into accidents.

'Drink up,' he says to Terry, tossing the kid a bottle of water. 'You're going to need to stay hydrated.'

'Yeah,' Terry says, cracking the top of the plastic and taking a good few mouthfuls. 'Wouldn't want to make it any easier for you to kill me or anything.'

'You were relying on the suit's flight capabilities just a little too much, little bat,' Dick says, with an appropriately tempered amount of glee.

'You could have told me before jamming them,' Terry complains.

'Who says I'm the one who jammed the jets?' asks Dick.

Terry snorts. 'The old man thinks I'm vulnerable enough as is. Not exactly his style to cripple the kid with the handicap.'

'Not his style?' Dick has to laugh at that one. 'Little bat, I think you just haven't seen what Bruce's style really is.'

'Heh,' Terry says. 'You're the master.'

The kid has a good laugh. A little edged by cynicism, but if what the files on him in the cave say is anything close to accurate, Dick's pleased at how gentle that edge can be. Terry saves the anger for the mission; it's the opposite of what Bruce would've wanted him to do, but it works, and it's better than watching one more bird's voice die on a caged song. 'There's only one master in this house,' Dick sings. 'I'm just an odd robin.'

'Want to tell me all about it?' Terry ventures.

And he goes where arguably no man has gone before. One small step for social graces, one giant leap for Bat-kind. 'It's a long story,' Dick warns.

'Hey,' Terry shrugs. 'You could always drive a little bit slower. C'mon. Everyone I know who knows likes to drop hints about the great and fabled Dick Grayson.'

'I may not be the same man, you know,' Dick has to point out. 'Everything's a little bit different down here, and it's not just this century's funky looking fashion.'

'Are you kidding me?' Terry says. 'The only Dick Grayson who lives down in the cave is probably right about your age. The Nightwing suit doesn't fit old men.'

'Point,' Dick concedes, because he'll be the last person to say that they don't all live at least a little bit in the past. Bruce is a master at that particular art, and Babs's other favourite past time is telling him that he's inherited way too much of the tendency to brood. 'How much do you know?'

'How much do you think they tell me? It's Wayne's game to play hide the graveyard. If he ever talks about you guys - which he doesn't - it's only to put me in my place. "None of the Robins,"' Terry does a more-than-passable imitation of Bruce's low rumble, '"ever complained". Right.'

'I don't think we complained,' Dick says. 'Yelled, shouted, snapped, screamed, yes - but complain? It's one thing to take Bruce to task for being heartless, and another thing altogether to say you don't want to finish a training sequence.'

'Who could?' Terry sighs. 'When the old man gets disappointed, the whole world gets to know.'

That makes Dick smile. 'Maybe you're just hypersensitive, little bat.'

'Could you ever look away when he was in the room?' Terry pauses. 'Sorry. Hard not to think of you in past tense.'

'Don't worry about it,' Dick waves it off. It's hard for him not to think of Bruce - this Bruce - in the present tense. 'And no, I couldn't. But I don't think I ever really wanted to in the first place.'

'Then why did you leave?'

The million dollar question. 'I think you'll have to keep at this another couple of years before you're ever going to understand the answer to that one, Terry.'

'If I had a dollar for every time someone mentioned that to me, Nightwing, I'd be pretty rich by now.'

Dick drums his fingers on the steering. 'There's Bruce,' he says finally. 'And then there's the mission. Sometimes all you'll ever see is the former. It's who Bruce is. It's what Bruce is. I don't know anyone who doesn't - openly or secretly - want to be like him in at least one way. You step into his world and nothing else in your own will ever be as immediate again.'

Terry's a good listener.

'Sometimes there are days when Bruce forgets about anything but the mission. And on those days you'll realise what it's like to matter not at all to Bruce - not at all to Batman. And let me tell you this, little bat,' Dick says, softly. 'There's nothing more humbling or degrading than how that feels. The world narrows down to a fine, high wire. I couldn't walk that line when I left. So I went.'

'You never came back.' In the monitor that feeds the rear view, McGinnis crosses his arms, an angry motion. 'None of you came back.'

'Maybe there was a reason,' Dick shrug. 'Or maybe none of us could be what Bruce Wayne is and always has been.'

The kid obviously wants to hit him for saying bad things about Bruce, and Dick would've wanted to hit himself too, in a better world. But sons are allowed to say what they want about their fathers, even if that's never been what either of them are. Dick lets Terry enjoy the entitlement of the newly converted. 'What's that?'

'Independent,' Dick answers, pulling the car up in an alley three streets from Terry's apartment block. 'Alone.'

Terry picks up his backpack and palms the cockpit controls. 'Maybe,' McGinnis says, climbing out. 'Or maybe not, Grayson. I'll catch you tomorrow.' He goes.

Dick shuts the cockpit roof. 'Yeah, little bat,' he smiles. 'I hope you prove me wrong, too.'

Bruce finds him far later than Dick expects to be found. Three a.m. and the manor is a mausoleum, expansive without Batman working against the soft light of the cray consoles and too quiet without the eternal hum of one engine or another running diagnostics in the background. Whenever Dick visits - visited - he is - was (god) used to the quiet, clockwork functionality of Bruce's playground. Nothing ever lay still: there was always a job to be done, always a case to be filed, always a toy to be designed or improved or tested. In recent - later - years it was the almost-imperceptible feedback from Tim's earphones as his little brother did his laps on the treadmill. Sometimes it was Bruce on the rings, just steady breathing and a rush of displaced air. Alfred coming down the steps. Cass in still meditation. It didn't have to be noise to be alive.

This cave is dead. Dick comes in to find more than three quarters of it shut down, and even though he started at one and hasn't stopped since, it's only still halfway active by the time he hears the sound of the lift hydraulics working.

The systems are the least rusty; Bruce still works from them, by the look of the files and the additional functionality that doesn't quite mesh with what Batman would've used if he quit two or three decades ago. The gym equipment gets rearranged - it's clear that McGinnis favours the pommel and the mats over the bars and the rings. He probably doesn't know how to work the higher elements well enough to like them; Bruce probably isn't in any state to show him how. Dick takes some of it out of storage: the extra rooms are in the same place, and the codes haven't changed. He dusts his hands and takes three sets on the horizontal bars before he's calm enough to move on.

The forensics lab is full of stale air and cobwebs. Dick knows that part of it is due to the nature of the suit - he needs to sit down with it before he'll know what it's fully capable of, but right now he wouldn't put it past Bruce to have installed enough additional functionality into the thing to make a full lab slightly redundant. But he knows it's also part of who McGinnis is. He's a real kid - the kind with a family - and an old kid. He's nothing like Tim - doesn't have the natural ability, and nowhere near the level of (Dick has to admit it) near-crazy dedication his little brother has to emulating every aspect of the Batman mythos. He did time in juvie, but he's doing time as Batman, fighting for every moment in that suit and for every part of Bruce's old morality. He's not Jason. He's also nothing like Dick himself: there's no way Bruce locks McGinnis into a lab and forces him through the motions, not with the kind of schedule McGinnis runs.

It's a strange feeling, like someone walking over his grave, that Dick gets when he runs tests on all the stock chemicals that Bruce still has here. He throws away about a tenth of what he finds - expired, or oxidised from a lack of proper sealant - and brings the rest out. Someone has to start teaching the kid, even if Bruce doesn't think that basic chemistry and criminology isn't worth the effort in this day and age. Dick wipes down the lab, and then keeps going.

There are all these aspects of Bruce that have decayed. The cave is lovely, dark and deep, and Dick has --

'You could use some sleep,' Bruce says, stepping out of the elevator and limping towards Dick. It's cold in the cave at night, always has been.

'You don't really mean that,' Dick says from his place in front of the computer. He's on a break, reading case files that look important, and keeping an eye on the EM monitors on the side. He's perched on a stool he's dragged up instead of sitting in the console's chair.

'No,' Bruce agrees, coming to stand next to Dick. 'I don't. Are you satisfied?'

'What with?' Dick asks. 'The state of the cave? No. Its authenticity? Maybe.'

'Good answer,' Bruce says.

'Are you satisfied?' Dick asks, closing the file he has open on Inque.

'No,' Bruce says, taking his seat. 'I never am.'

Dick shouldn't feel more assured by Bruce's answer than by anything else that has happened so far, but he does. It's as harsh as it should be. It doesn't have the padding that Bruce seems to eager to present McGinnis with. This is the Bruce Dick knows: the Bruce who doesn't want him to trust anything, or anyone. The Bruce who pushes instead of ever giving. The Bruce he can't come close to, can't touch. 'Terry's got potential,' he offers, a report more than anything. 'A lot of green that needs to be trained out. But a lot of spirit.'

'Mm,' Bruce says.

Dick shoots a look at the display cases behind them. He spent five minutes with a cloth and glass cleaner there, standing in front of one Robin suit and then another, wiping and wiping and wiping until he realised what he was doing. He tears his gaze away, brings it back. 'Is it because he reminds you of something, Bruce? Is that why you're compensating?'

'I'm not compensating,' Bruce says, opening up a document that requires security access that Dick doesn't have.

'Aren't you?' Dick says, antagonised. 'You're blunt with him, Bruce, and I don't mean the way you speak. You're letting him get away with easy lies and mediocre ability. He's got a brain that you're not working. He's got athleticism that you're not even encouraging him to develop. It's not because you can't, Bruce. You won't. You won't send him to whoever it is that's the equivalent of the League, or Shiva, or even any one of the good guys. You let him walk away from the Justice League when they could've put him through the paces you can't. You're compensating for something.'

'Yes,' Bruce says, which stuns Dick for a moment. 'I am blunt.' Bruce clicks and starts typing. Dick spares the screen a look and it's -- a file on him. Last edited last night, now with additional footage from Terry's cowlcam and apparently pictures from when he'd slept in his room the night before. New DNA analysis cross referenced to his old set. It's just like Bruce. 'I've become blunt,' Bruce qualifies as he fills in more details. Dick looks away before he can read just what. 'It's what old age does. Iron sharpens iron. Without that, iron rusts. There has been nothing in Gotham in the last decade but petty thieves and obvious liars. There's no challenge. Nothing to rise up against. Nothing for Terry, and nothing for me.' The silence that comes as Bruce stops typing rings in Dick's ears. 'Now you are going to be my flint, Dick.'

Now, Dick can't help but thinking, now the world is going to burn with the fire you've lit beneath all of us, isn't it, Bruce?

'You're frightening when you're like this,' Dick admits. 'I haven't seen you weak before. I haven't seen you smile like this since --'

'Those were simpler days,' Bruce growls, cutting in. 'And these are now simple times. You can walk down a street and get shoved into an alley by punks with caked makeup pretending to be a chip off of a monster they don't even remember or understand. Welcome to Gotham City, Nightwing,' Bruce pantomimes. It makes Dick shiver. 'She and her two-bit criminals that won't stand up to a boy wonder in a magic suit. But that's already starting to change.'

It's unfair of Bruce to use that term. It's unfair, and that's exactly why he's saying it. 'So does McGinnis make you laugh, Bruce?' Dick throws back. 'That's why you let him talk the way you let me talk? And will you teach him how to stop the hard way, too?'

'He doesn't make me laugh, Dick,' Bruce shakes his head, but just once. 'But he does make me remember what it was like, with you.'

Oh. Oh.

'When did you learn to start complimenting people?' Dick hazards a joke, because if he doesn't then he won't know what else to do - won't know what else to say to the man who seems to be at once Batman and Bruce Wayne, like two and two added together and finally halved the way he's always meant to have been halved. If he doesn't make the joke now, Dick won't know what to say in response to the words he's wanted to hear from Bruce for what feels like the eternity of his life since he flew the nest - the words that are coming now, fifty years in the future, from a man who's eighty years old and completely different from (and exactly the same as) the one Dick left behind. That's dangerous, too dangerous, and too easy.

Don't let your emotions get in the way. He's always right.

He's always right.

Bruce probably hears every single thing that Dick doesn't say, but Bruce knows just as well when things ought to be allowed to stay under rug swept. 'Things change,' Bruce says.

'You said it,' Dick murmurs, hopping off his seat. This is enough, for one night. Enough for him to justify more of his belief that this is real, and more than enough for him to go to sleep over. 'Need anything? Coffee, tea, me?'

'Go to sleep,' Batman says, the real Batman, emerging slow and evolved and breaking free from an old chrysalis.

You're using your command voice, Dick wants to tell Bruce, wants Bruce to know. Do you realise that?

'Yes, sir,' he says instead, and sheds the Nightwing suit as he walks past the case worth of odd-numbered Robins.
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